Coronavirus: Concern over government’s diabetes advice to Commons Speaker

Serious concerns have emerged over advice being given by Public Health England (PHE) to people with long-term health conditions after the Commons Speaker, who has diabetes, insisted he had been told he can continue to work in the Houses of Parliament.

Next week, parliament will become far busier than it was before the Whitsun break, after the government told all MPs they should return to parliament, rather than allowing many of them to continue to work from home.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has type one diabetes, is planning to stay working in parliament, which will involve chairing debates in the main Commons chamber, despite people with diabetes being considered “clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.

The government has this week been accused of “acting recklessly” by trying to force other MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions to return to parliament next week, while the country is still in the grip of the pandemic (see separate story).

The government’s own guidance makes it clear that people with diabetes are considered “clinically vulnerable” and are therefore at higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus.

The “staying alert and safe” guidance, last updated on 22 May, adds: “You are advised to stay at home as much as possible and, if you do go out, take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household.”

But a spokesperson for the Speaker told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that PHE had advised him he can continue to work in the House of Commons because he is under 70 (he is 62), has no other underlying health conditions and is under medical supervision.

This advice appears to conflict with the government’s official guidance.

A spokesperson for the Speaker pointed to a letter in which he told MPs that House of Commons authorities were “working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June”.

The Speaker’s spokesperson said: “Mr Speaker is fit and well – and he’s busy getting on with the day job.

“Like so many others living with type one diabetes, Sir Lindsay’s experience has shown, that with the right support from healthcare professionals – and careful management – people can live full and happy lives following their diagnosis.”

Asked by DNS yesterday if it stood by its advice to Sir Lindsay that it was safe for him to continue working in the House of Commons next week, a PHE spokesperson said: “We wouldn’t comment on individual cases but please see government guidance advice, which includes advice for vulnerable groups.”

This advice suggests that people like Sir Lindsay with diabetes should “stay at home as much as possible”.

Neither the Speaker’s office nor PHE has been able to clear up this confusion this morning.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence of the risks faced by people with diabetes during the pandemic.

NHS figures have shown that almost one in three people who have died with COVID-19 in hospital in England had diabetes, while most people with diabetes could soon be forced to self-isolate to provide further protection, as a result of an “active review” of groups that are most vulnerable to coronavirus.

Asked if there was a risk that the Speaker’s actions could lull other people with diabetes into a false sense of security – and provide ammunition for employers who try to force people with diabetes back into the workplace against their wishes – his spokesperson had failed to comment by 1pm today (Thursday).

The Speaker raised his own concerns about the ending of the hybrid arrangements last week, in a letter he wrote last week to a group of MPs who had raised the issue.

In the letter, Sir Lindsay said he was “personally sympathetic to those who need to stay at home because they are vulnerable, shielding or have caring responsibilities”.

He said he had continued to express his view to the government that the possibility of taking part in parliamentary proceedings online “should remain for these colleagues” and that individual political parties “have a duty of care to their MPs to ensure that they are not put at risk and protection is available for those who need it”.

He added: “The house authorities are working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020


Coronavirus: Government ‘acting recklessly’ by forcing disabled MPs back to parliament

The government has been accused of “acting recklessly” by trying to force MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions to return to parliament next week, while the country is still in the grip of the pandemic.

At least three MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions – including one Tory former minister – have raised concerns that the move will put the lives of themselves and others at risk.

The Tory leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has put an end to the “hybrid” arrangements that have allowed a small number of MPs to be present in parliament while others take part in debates and votes online from their own homes.

This means that, when parliament returns from its Whitsun break next week, hundreds more MPs are likely to be present around parliament, although only 50 of them will be allowed to be in the main Commons chamber at any time.

Rees-Mogg claims that all those MPs, and any staff not able to work from home, will be observing “social distancing”.

But Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, who is visually-impaired, told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that she was currently unable to return to parliament without putting herself at risk.

She said: “The government has acted recklessly to end hybrid proceedings in parliament without any proper consultation with ill and disabled MPs, some of whom are shielding.

“I will not be able to safely follow social distancing rules in parliament, or have the support of my sighted assistant.”

She added: “We are urging the leader of the house to act immediately to make the necessary reasonable adjustments to ensure that ill and disabled MPs are not excluded from participating in parliamentary proceedings.

“An inclusive and accessible strategy must be produced to support ill and disabled MPs to safely return to parliament.”

The disabled Tory MP and former minister Robert Halfon was even more outspoken.

He was reported to have said last week, after it became clear the government would end the hybrid arrangements: “Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents: ‘Look, I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?

“MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knackers’ yard.”

Halfon, who has both cerebral palsy and osteo-arthritis, did not respond to a request from DNS to comment this week.

Another disabled Tory MP, Paul Maynard, also failed to respond to a request to comment.

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, revealed to DNS last month that she was in self-isolation during the pandemic because she was on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those most at serious risk from COVID-19.

She said she was concerned about the risk to her health if she followed the government’s instructions.

She will not be joining colleagues in parliament next week but is “looking at longer-term plans with the parliamentary authorities”.

She said: “Labour has serious concerns about the government’s plan to ditch remote participation and force all MPs to physically return to parliament next week, not least for people like me who are shielding.

“The hybrid system which allowed MPs to take part in parliament virtually worked well.

“Thanks to the hard work of the house authorities and staff, we were able to contribute, and continue to represent our constituents and hold the government to account.

“We have not been told what we are supposed to do: ignore the government’s advice on shielding and risk our own health, or be excluded from participating in parliament.

“We need answers.”

But there are also concerns about the actions of Public Health England, which has told the Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has type one diabetes, that it is safe for him to continue his work in parliament because he is under 70 (he is 62), has no other health issues and  is under medical supervision (see separate story).

The Speaker raised his own concerns about the ending of the hybrid arrangements last week, in a letter he wrote to a group of MPs who had raised the issue.

In the letter, the Speaker said he was “personally sympathetic to those who need to stay at home because they are vulnerable, shielding or have caring responsibilities”.

He said he had continued to express his view to Rees-Mogg that the possibility of taking part in parliamentary proceedings online “should remain for these colleagues” and that individual political parties “have a duty of care to their MPs to ensure that they are not put at risk and protection is available for those who need it”.

He added: “The house authorities are working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June.”

Former prime minister Theresa May, another MP with type one diabetes, did not respond to a request to comment this week. Neither did Labour’s Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, who has type two diabetes.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) refused this week to say if it was concerned about the steps the government had taken to force MPs to return to parliament and the potential risk to disabled MPs.

But an EHRC spokesperson said: “Our advice to employers on avoiding discrimination during the pandemic applies equally to Westminster.

“Government should equality impact assess all return to work policy to ensure it is safe and appropriate for different groups to do so.”

Rees-Mogg told MPs last week that the hybrid arrangements “fundamentally restrict the [ability of the House of Commons] to perform its functions fully” so he was “asking members to return to their place of work after Whitsun”.

He said the government had received reassurance from the Commons authorities that the House of Commons would be “a COVID-19-secure workplace by the time we come back after the Whitsun recess; that a risk assessment has been carried out by the parliamentary authorities; and that enormous steps are being taken to help and to assist parliamentary staff”.

And he said the government was working with the Commons authorities to see how MPs who have been told to ​shield or were receiving government advice about their health “can continue to contribute to proceedings within the house”.

But asked for an update on how those discussions were proceeding, a government spokesperson refused to comment this week, or to say whether the government believed its move discriminated against disabled people under the Equality Act.

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020


Coronavirus: Disabled politicians call for Cummings to be sacked

Disabled politicians – including both government and opposition MPs – have joined campaigners in expressing anger at the actions of the prime minister’s chief adviser, who has refused to apologise for breaking the government’s own coronavirus lockdown rules.

They have contrasted the actions of Dominic Cummings during a trip to Durham from his London home with those of millions of disabled people who have followed the government’s lockdown instructions, while also seeing their own rights attacked and their services cut during the pandemic crisis.

Among those criticising Cummings was the disabled Tory MP Paul Maynard, who said he shared the public’s “collective dismay” at his actions.

He said these actions were “utterly indefensible” and that Cummings’ position as chief adviser to Boris Johnson was “wholly untenable”.

Maynard, a former transport minister who is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: “So many people in this constituency have gone out of their way to stick to both the letter and the spirit of the guidelines and laws, despite it coming at great personal emotional cost.

“It is a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ – and it is not as if he was unfamiliar with guidance he himself helped draw up.”

Another disabled Tory MP, and former minister, Robert Halfon, had to apologise after originally writing a tweet that supported Cummings, who he said was merely driving more than 260 miles with his wife – while both were ill – to “ensure that their small child can be looked after properly”.

He wrote a Facebook post to apologise to his constituents in Harlow for his tweet, and to make it clear that he does not “condone anyone who has broken the law or regulations”.

He said: “It is important for everyone to follow public health advice, that includes members of the government and their advisors.

“If those regulations or laws have been breached there should be serious consequences.

“The tweet was wrong because many thousands of people in Harlow and across the country have suffered and struggled enormously during the coronavirus.

“It has caused significant pain and hardship. My tweet did not recognise that. I am sorry.”

For Labour, Marsha de Cordova, the disabled MP for Battersea and shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, said Cummings’ actions were “an insult to the British people and to all those who have sacrificed so much”.

And Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who is herself self-isolating because she is on immunosuppressant medication for rheumatoid arthritis, which places her among those most at risk from COVID-19, condemned the actions of Cummings, and the prime minister for supporting him.

She said she had heard from many people who, “in similar or more difficult circumstances, did as the Government had advised and stayed at home to protect the NHS and save lives”, including “countless people who were unable to visit dying relatives”.

She said: “The message from this government is clear: it’s one rule for Boris Johnson’s closest adviser and another for everybody else.”

Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the disabled peer and former president of the Liberal Democrats, was another to call for Cummings to lose his job.

She said: “If he doesn’t resign the PM should sack him, and if that doesn’t happen, the cabinet secretary should have an investigation.”

She said the scandal was “distracting from serious COVID problems”, including a spike in cases at Weston General Hospital in Somerset.

Another disabled politician, Pam Duncan-Glancy, who stood for Labour in Glasgow North at December’s general election, told Twitter followers how she had attended her father’s funeral during the pandemic crisis but had to spend it two metres apart from her sister.

After the service they “couldn’t go home to the same house to laugh, cry and remember him together”.

She said, in response to the emerging details of Cummings’ trip to Durham: “We did the right thing, even though it felt so much like the wrong thing. I am seething tonight.”

The crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell compared watching Cummings explain his actions at a press conference in the Number 10 garden on Monday to the “stomach churning interview with Prince Andrew” which followed the allegations the disgraced royal faced about allegations of sexual misconduct.

The disabled journalist Dr Frances Ryan, another who is having to shield during the pandemic, said on Twitter: “Not being mentioned but I really feel for people shielding.

“It’s hard enough seeing everyone else out and meeting friends but knowing people like Cummings were travelling (likely already infected) makes you feel even less safe.

“How can we ever go out if rules aren’t enforced.”

The disabled people’s organisation People First (Self Advocacy) said on Twitter: “Mr Cummings makes explaining gov policy harder to people with learning difficulties by his actions.”

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said in a statement that her organisation was “incensed and incredulous” that the government was “excusing Dominic Cummings’ needless travel”.

She said this was happening when many disabled people had rightly been instructed “to do the exact opposite and shield, without movement, often with inadequate adjustments and resources to do so safely”.

She said: “There are countless families up and down the country who have survived COVID-19, alone, without carers and PAs, with children with physical, mental and behavioural impairments, who have adhered to this lockdown to the letter, because it is the right thing to do, not just for their families, but for the greater good.”

She said disabled people had had their rights to care reduced, had lost their personal assistants, had had “huge difficulty” accessing food and medicines, and endured increased costs of living during the coronavirus lockdown.

She said: “That government is now excusing one of its senior employees for breaking the rules is a slap in the face for every single disabled parent and family with a disabled child, who has locked down, stood fast with their community, endured hardship, and endured coronavirus symptoms with little to no support.

“Disabled people who have had to shield have had no contact with the outside world for close to three months.

“Many live in flats, with no access even to sunshine and fresh air, let alone outside exercise.

“The government would do well to remind itself that we are all in this together. That the rules are not a pick and mix. And that in such circumstances, its inner circle needs to lead by example, not convenience.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020


Thinktank responsible for universal credit launches ‘Disability Commission’

The right-wing thinktank responsible for designing universal credit has launched a new “Disability Commission” that it hopes will influence the government’s planned disability strategy.

At least half of the 12 commissioners, who will not be paid for their work, are disabled people, and several of them have publicly criticised government policy on disability in the last decade.

But there are likely to be concerns among disabled activists over the involvement of CSJ, which was responsible for designing universal credit, and was founded by – and is still chaired by – Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

The implementation of universal credit has been linked to early deaths, addiction, mental distress and suicides, including the deaths of disabled claimants.

The boss of a homeless charity that provides services just a short walk from last year’s Tory party conference told party members then that universal credit had caused poverty levels that were “a throwback to the Victorian era”.

Years of evidence also show that decisions taken by Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary between 2010 and 2016 – including those related to incapacity benefit reform – are closely linked to the deaths of many disabled benefit claimants.

Last year, DNS published a 12,000-word article calling for a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct in public office by Duncan Smith and other senior DWP figures.

CSJ is now claiming that its new Disability Commission will “secure a step change in the opportunities available to disabled people, especially in employment, to live their lives fully and as they want to”.

CSJ said it would do this by “influencing the development and implementation” of the government’s much-delayed cross-government disability strategy, but it has refused to say who is funding the commission, although it claims that its funders “have no editorial control over our work”.

CSJ plans an initial report later this year, which it hopes will feed into the government’s strategy, with three other reports next year designed to “influence its implementation and especially any subsequent legislation”.

The commission appears set to focus on the role of business, employment and the free market, with CSJ calling on the government to use the disability strategy to “prove that only a market economy delivers sustainable social justice in a way that enables everyone to realise their potential”.

Disabled members of the commission include the chair, the Tory peer Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin; the crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson; disability consultant Helen Cooke; mobility consultant Helen Dolphin, a long-standing member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee; and James Lee, a consultant with the City Bridge Trust and a member of Transport for London’s independent disability advisory group.

Other members are Professor Kim Hoque, professor of human resource management at Warwick Business School; Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of the Business Disability Forum; and Mark Harper, a former Tory minister for disabled people.

The commission also includes inclusion experts from accounting and consultancy giants Deloitte and EY, and from law firm Clifford Chance, as well as David Forbes-Nixon, the founder of global asset management group Alcentra, its deputy chair.

Baroness Grey-Thompson – who was widely praised for a speech criticising the government’s “draconian” emergency coronavirus legislation in March – said she had joined CSJ’s commission because of the “desperate need” for new social security legislation, which had been delayed by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

She said she had known Lord Shinkwin “a long time” and had sat with him on the National Disability Council, which was set up under the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 (and later abolished when the Disability Rights Commission was established five years later).

She said: “The vast majority of my work is pan-disability and I’m very lucky I have a network of people with different impairments to speak to.

“I decided that with a massive change in how we operate (virtually) and we don’t know what the new world is going to be like, sitting around the table to be part of the discussion was important.”

Dolphin, who has also criticised past government social security reforms, said she had decided to join the commission because she wanted to “make a difference to the lives of disabled people” and that the main “driving force” for doing so was “the quality of the other commissioners and the important scope of the work”.

Hoque, who has carried out influential research exposing the flaws of the government’s Disability Confident scheme, said he had been working with Lord Shinkwin over the last year on issues such as the need for mandatory disability pay gap reporting, reform of Disability Confident, and the need for employers to do more on disability employment.

He said he hoped these recommendations for reform would “feature heavily in the Disability Commission’s thinking”.

He said he also hoped CSJ’s track record in influencing government policy would “prove extremely helpful” in ensuring these and other recommendations were included in the government’s Disability Strategy.

He added: “The bodies funding the CSJ will have no input into the commission or its recommendations, there are very strict editorial standards in place (and were they to try – not that they will – the commissioners would resist this with the utmost vehemence).”

28 May 2020


Coronavirus: Tesco ‘opens priority home deliveries to disabled shoppers’

More than 350 disabled people have secured the right to be added to a supermarket’s priority shopping list, in the first success of what is believed to be the biggest legal class action of its kind.

Tesco also appears to have agreed to add all disabled shoppers with a need to receive home shopping deliveries to its priority list during the crisis, although it has not yet confirmed this.

At least 370 disabled people so far have signed up for the class action against various UK supermarkets over allegations that they have discriminated against them during the coronavirus crisis.

Now Tesco, one of the companies facing mass claims of disability discrimination, has won some praise for agreeing to allow every one of those taking legal action to have priority access to its home shopping deliveries.

This offer is open to all those who have taken legal action against any supermarket as part of the class action being coordinated by solicitors Fry Law and barristers at Cloisters chambers, and not only those taking action against Tesco.

But Fry Law says that Tesco has also promised to allow priority access to home deliveries to disabled people who are not part of the legal action.

Although the legal action against Tesco will continue – as the claimants are still seeking compensation for how they were treated over several weeks – the supermarket’s actions have halted Fry Law’s moves to seek an urgent legal injunction on behalf of a disabled single mother, Joanne Baskett, from Swindon, one of the 370 claimants.

She has multiple health conditions and is currently unable to leave her bed without support while she recovers from surgery she underwent in late March.

She says she had to stay up until midnight every night for weeks – after coming home from hospital on 26 March – trying to secure a Tesco delivery slot.

She said: “It has just been so stressful. I was supposed to be resting but I was doing nothing of the sort. I stayed up every night trying to get a slot and ending up in tears.”

She said she had been treated “pretty unfairly” by Tesco, and had eventually been forced to shop with another, more expensive, supermarket which she could not afford.

She said: “I have been a long-term customer of theirs, I have shown loyalty to them and they wouldn’t help me in my hour of need.”

She said she would be happy if Tesco opened up access to priority slots for all disabled people who needed them, but was not yet convinced that they had agreed to do so, and had not yet had confirmation that her own need to have her shopping delivered at a time when a care worker was with her had been confirmed by the supermarket.

She said: “I did this to make other people’s lives easier, so they don’t undergo the stress I did when I came out of hospital.”

Other claimants who have passed on their details to Tesco through Fry Law now appear to be receiving calls from the office of Tesco’s chief executive, confirming that they have now been added to the list of those given priority access to home deliveries.

The threat of an urgent legal injunction could still be used against other supermarkets.

Fry praised Tesco for agreeing to provide priority access to all the claimants, and not just those who had a case against Tesco.

And he said it was “a big positive” that Tesco had apparently agreed to open priority access to all disabled customers needing adjustments.

He said: “It is significant progress. They are the first supermarket to accept that disabled clients are more than just those on the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ list.”

But he added: “It is just a first step. Ultimately where we want to get to is priority access for every disabled person who needs it at every supermarket, so that they have the same freedom of choice they had before COVID.”

There are also still concerns over the accessibility of the Tesco website, and discrimination by the other large supermarkets, including policies on home deliveries and failure to make adjustments for in-store disabled shoppers.

Fry said: “We certainly don’t want to see disabled people shut out of shops. Policies do need to change in-store as well. We’re tackling these issues one step at a time.”

He added: “I do want to give significant credit to Tesco for doing what they say they do, which is putting the customer first, although it has taken them a little while to do that.”

Tesco had failed to answer questions about its agreement to open its priority list by noon today (Thursday).

But a Tesco spokesperson said in a statement: “We are continuing to do everything we can to increase our online capacity and support our most vulnerable customers.

“Since the start of this crisis, we have more than doubled our online capacity, with 1.3 million online slots this week.

“We are working hard to support as many customers as possible who have needed our help, with more than 530,000 vulnerable customers now on our priority list.

“If a customer is vulnerable and needs our support, we would encourage them to contact us directly.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020


Coronavirus: Ministers refuse to show they assessed equality impact of recovery plan

A disabled shadow minister has called on the government to show that it has analysed how its strategy for recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will affect disabled people and other minority groups.

The government has failed so far to publish an equality impact assessment (EIA) of its recovery strategy, which itself was published earlier this month.

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, said the coronavirus crisis had already “exposed and exacerbated economic, health and social inequalities” in society.

She said it was “vital” that disabled people, as well as other groups most at risk – including the BAME community and women – were protected in the government’s plans to ease lockdown.

This was why Labour was calling on the government to “urgently undertake and publish” an EIA of its strategy, she said.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also appears to be concerned about the government’s actions.

An EHRC spokesperson said: “We would expect equality to be considered in all areas of work, particularly this one.

“We have raised this point with government and await its response.”

An EIA is one of the ways in which a government department can fulfil its public sector equality duty to advance equality of opportunity between protected groups and those who do not share a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

The government’s recovery strategy, Our Plan to Rebuild, only mentions disabled people once across its 60 pages, although it does mention specific impairment groups such as people with learning difficulties (once) and autistic people (once).

Instead, it refers repeatedly to those who are most “vulnerable” to the virus and describes the measures it has taken to support them, including those who are currently advised to stay at home at all times.

It says the government is aware that “the challenge for those being asked to shield may deepen” when other members of society return to “aspects of their normal daily lives” and that it will “review the scale and scope of their needs and how the support programme can best meet these”.

The one mention of disabled people comes when the government pledges to ensure that disabled people “can have independent lives and are not marginalised”.

It says this will include “making sure that they can access public services”, considering their needs as the government “creates safe work environments” and reopens the transport system, and ensuring their “health outcomes do not suffer disproportionately”.

Earlier this month, at least 10 disabled MPs and peers signed a cross-party letter that called on the government to ensure that it improved its support for disabled people in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

They warned that what it did to “support, include and enable” disabled people would have “significant socio-economic and equality implications for years to come”, and they also called for an EIA of the government’s recovery plan.

Only last week, Disability News Service reported how disAbility Cornwall and Isles of Scilly had become the latest in a series of disabled people’s organisations to highlight how the pandemic had entrenched social isolation among disabled people.

Asked if the government had carried out an EIA on its coronavirus recovery strategy, a government spokesperson said: “The government always takes care to consider the equality impacts of policy decisions.”

Asked to clarify if it had carried out a written assessment and, if so, whether it would be published, the spokesperson declined to comment further, but pointed to comments made last month by Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities.

Truss said last month that there can be “a chilling effect on being frank in those assessments if they are then subsequently published” and that EIAs were “internal documents to help inform the government about how we operate”.

She added: “The more that those documents are published, the more difficult it is for people to be frank in those documents.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020


Sanction threats are likely to harm health of WRAG claimants, says research

Trying to force disabled people into work by threatening to sanction their benefits is ineffective and likely to harm their health, and even put their lives at risk, according to research co-produced with a disabled people’s organisation.

The fear instilled by the threat of financial sanctions means that many disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits are in a state of “constant anxiety” because they are fearful of losing their income, according to the researchers.

There is also no evidence that this threat helps disabled people move more quickly into jobs, they say*.

The research was “designed, conducted and analysed” by the disabled people’s organisation (DPO) Inclusion London and academics from the University of Essex and Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, with disabled people involved in all aspects of the research process.

The authors believe it is the first UK welfare reform research project to be entirely co-produced in collaboration between a DPO and academic researchers.

They spent two years investigating the impact of strict conditions and sanctions on disabled people placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of the employment and support allowance (ESA) system.

Disabled people placed in the WRAG can lose up to 100 per cent of their ESA payment if they fail to complete the work-related activity they are told to carry out by a jobcentre adviser, they warn.

Research in 2018 found that more than 110,000 benefit sanctions had been applied to ESA WRAG claimants since 2010, with another 140,000 imposed but later cancelled.

The researchers carried out 15 in-depth interviews with current and former members of the WRAG.

One of those interviewed, Hannah, told them: “But just the thought of being sanctioned is a worry in itself… There’s no ifs or buts, it’s black and white, this way or that’s it. There’s no leniency with anybody.”

Another, Charlie, said: “Your whole time, everything you’re doing revolves around the jobcentre and what they require from you… So, you’re constantly adapting to them rather than them adapting to your needs.”

The researchers say in the study that the “psychological interventions” made by jobcentre advisers would be “rejected as ineffective and harmful” if they were being used as a mental health treatment.

At least 50 per cent of WRAG claimants have pre-existing mental health conditions, the study says.

The study concludes: “The chronic anxiety engendered by the conditionality and sanctioning regime is likely to be psychologically harmful for most people; for people with pre-existing conditions it is potentially catastrophic.”

And they warn that the government’s plans to “entrench conditionality and sanctioning” at the heart of the much-criticised universal credit system “poses the real risk of a public mental health crisis” because it involves imposing “perverse and punitive” conditions on all claimants.

An earlier report based on the research was launched at the Houses of Parliament in October 2018, and led to Ellen Clifford, co-author of both reports, saying she feared the continuing roll-out of universal credit would “further entrench the conditionality approach”.

Nearly all the participants in the research spoke about the importance of peer support or involvement in disability campaigning as a way of coping with life under benefit conditionality, with half of them expressing anger towards the current social security regime.

This attitude of “resistance” provides “a way to form connections with others, make sense of the world and regain a more positive sense of self”, the study found.

The researchers say in the article: “Their comments show how, by contrast to experiences of conditionality which are characterised by feelings of powerlessness under a perverse and punitive system, an attitude of resistance to that system provided a way to form connections with others, make sense of the world and regain a more positive sense of self.”

The researchers recommend closer links between welfare researchers, the government and DPOs so they can develop new ways to engage disabled people in work-related activity.

They admit that a key limitation of their research was that they interviewed only a small number of people and “there may have been a tendency for people with more negative experiences of the WRAG to come forward”, but they say they produced similar findings to much larger studies.

*‘They Say Jump, We Say How High?’ Conditionality, Sanctioning and Incentivising Disabled People into the UK Labour Market; by Danny Taggart, Jaimini Mehta, Ellen Clifford and Ewen Speed; published by Disability & Society

28 May 2020


Round-up: Furlough flaws, COVID funds, podcast drama… and appeal for musicians

New research shows that more than four in ten people who have been told to “shield” at home because they are “extremely vulnerable” to COVID-19 have lost at least a fifth of their income since the pandemic crisis began.

The research, published by Citizens Advice and based on a poll by Opinium Research, also found that more than a quarter of those told to shield had lost at least three-fifths of their income.

And more than one in 10 of them are working outside their home, despite the potential risk to their health.

Citizens Advice said many of those told to shield because of an underlying health condition that puts them at particular risk from the virus were suffering financially because of a flaw in government guidance.

The government has advised 2.5 million people who are “extremely clinically vulnerable” to shield at home until the end of June at the earliest, but it does not oblige employers to “furlough” them, through a scheme in which the government pays up to 80 per cent of the wages of workers placed on leave because of the pandemic.

Citizens Advice said that analysis of about 2,000 of the employment cases it has advised on since 14 April that relate to people who are shielding or are at higher risk from coronavirus showed more than 70 per cent of them had not been not furloughed.

Dame Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice’s chief executive, said: “Unless people who are shielding have a right to be furloughed while their health is at risk, some will continue to face an impossible choice: paying the bills or protecting their health.”

A new seven-part drama-documentary podcast about the life of an autistic woman – in her own words – is the latest in a series of productions commissioned by Disability Arts Online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The podcast, 213 Things About Me, tells the story of Rose through a list of the traits she makes after being diagnosed as autistic and before she took her own life just six months later.

It is based on her writing and conversations with her close friend Richard Butchins, the disabled writer, film-maker and journalist, who writes, narrates and directs the podcast, which stars actor Rosa Hoskins, daughter of the late Bob Hoskins.

It describes Rose’s attempts to find a relationship, a job and a decent place to live, and “is loaded with dark humour and astute observations”.

It is based on an installation by Butchins that was commissioned by the disability arts commissioning programme Unlimited, and a theatre performance staged by Hoskins at Battersea Arts Centre two years ago.

The podcast launches today (28 May), with the next six episodes released weekly, with the last on 7 July.

It is published by Disability Arts Online as part of its Covid Commissions season, which was launched in response to the “unprecedented situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak”.

A pan-London disabled people’s organisation has received funding to help reach community groups working with those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The £15,000 funding for Inclusion London is part of London Community Response, which aims to help fund the capital’s community and voluntary organisations following lockdown, and which is supported by the mayor of London and the City Bridge Trust.

The funding will allow Inclusion London to spend three months ensuring that the needs of organisations led by Deaf and disabled people in the capital are being met by London Community Response.

As part of that work, they will support user-led groups to access the fund through one-to-one guidance, workshops and information sessions.

Tracey Lazard, Inclusion London’s chief executive, said: “Inclusion London welcomes this exciting opportunity for collaborative working with other equalities infrastructure organisations and London Community Response funders to ensure the needs of our marginalised communities most affected by the COVID-19 crisis are met and structural inequalities tackled.”

A befriending scheme to help people with learning difficulties access mainstream music is appealing for musicians to perform at its virtual music festival.

The online music festival, @CoronavirusFest, was set up after the imposition of lockdown in March in a bid to keep people with learning difficulties connected through music while venues are closed.

Gig Buddies, a scheme run by the charity Stay Up Late in Sussex, hopes its @CoronavirusFest project will also provide an opportunity for musicians to perform, rehearse material and promote themselves during lockdown.

The online festival takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 and 9pm, with the chance to perform a short gig through Facebook Live open to musicians of all abilities, with and without learning difficulties.

Gig Buddies helps people with learning difficulties access mainstream music, art and culture by linking them up with local volunteers with the same interests.

It is run by Stay Up Late, which was set up to help people with learning difficulties who are prevented from leading full and active social lives because of support workers who do not offer support past 10pm.

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

28 May 2020

News provided by John Pring at